HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Silila Tucker doesn’t regret enrolling at Graceland University. To do so would be to regret many of the modern blessings he currently enjoys. It was at Graceland where he met his wife. Played a lot of good volleyball there, too, once rising as high as No. 2 in the nation for NAIA schools. But the teeny, tiny university in Lamoni, Iowa, with an undergraduate population of less than 1,000, made him forget.
Tucker’s first taste of volleyball came on the beach. He’d scrap against the Aunties at Queen’s Beach on Oahu. Follow around his dad when he was playing in qualifiers with an obnoxious, blonde, mohawk-rocking kid named Casey Patterson, returning to show off all the sponsored stuff he hawked from the booths — sunscreen! T-shirts! Chapstick! He’d take any chance he could to run around with the other kids in Hawai’i over the summers. Occasionally at Graceland, he and Steve Roschitz would hit he dirt courts that masqueraded as sand, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t Hawai’i. Heck, it wouldn’t have compared to man-made courts in Utah or Texas, which Tucker would soon frequent.
“For me, it was go play indoor, play it until it’s done, and then start playing beach tournaments,” Tucker said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “And when I started playing beach again, I go ‘Oh yeah, I want to do this more than that.’ I got so distracted. I just wasted five years. I could have done this right away. What was I doing?’ It clicked right away. This is what I want to do.”
There is hardly a direct path for a male to get into professional beach volleyball. Since the NCAA introduced women’s beach volleyball as a sport in 2012, that path has become clear for the females. But the men? It’s a make-it-up-as-you-go adventure. When Tucker felt the itch for the beach again, he simply made it up as he went.
Texas came first. Tucker graduated from Graceland and moved with his future wife to Houston. Roschitz, his old teammate, lived in San Antonio, and they’d occasionally play local tournaments together. But on the day-to-day, Tucker got his fix any way he could. He’d train at 6 a.m. before work, punch the clock, lift at lunch, then occasionally play in the evenings at Ryan Walker’s house.
His bosses even let him travel as much as he wanted in 2019, allowing him to take time off to play in qualifiers in Huntington Beach, Austin, New York, Manhattan Beach, and Chicago, as well as an automatic main draw — his second career main draw — in Hermosa.
Still, even with a steady job and understanding management, Tucker knew that “it was cool, but when you’re in there thinking about volleyball all day, and you know you’re not doing what you want to do, it’s tough to be there,” he said. So he bailed, making a decision that is difficult for some but not for Tucker, moving to California after the 2019 season.
Nothing is half-speed for Tucker. He’s all in or he’s nothing at all. It takes most years to come to the realization that they might need a coach, a trainer, a team. It took Tucker a few weeks.
“I would always ask questions of why is that guy doing that,” Tucker said. “Even down to the sponsor stuff. All of them are telling me that there is plenty of money out there, you don’t have to wait until you’re good to find that stuff. I’ve always taken volleyball so seriously, in high school and college almost to a negative, I’m hard on teammates. I understand now that I’m going to work as hard as I’m going to work, which is hard, but I’m not going to make anyone else do what I want to do. It never made sense for me to not take it seriously. It’s the only way you can do it, I think.”
This past season, the dividends of that mindset came pouring in. He nearly doubled his career prize money in a single year, making main draws in Austin, New Orleans, Hermosa Beach, and Manhattan Beach. He won the Laguna Open with Andy Benesh, took a fifth in a Tour Series in Virginia Beach with Andrew Dentler and claimed a career-best third in Huntington Beach with Bill Kolinske. Along the way, he logged three wins over one individual in particular that would prove to be critical in how this upcoming 2023 season would look.
Thrice he beat Paul Lotman — twice in Laguna, including in the finals, then again in Huntington Beach. Valuable, those wins. Earlier that year, Lotman had won his first AVP, in Atlanta with Miles Partain. Nearly won another, too, in Phoenix. Then he collected a fifth and a bronze in Dubai with Taylor Crabb, and a fourth in an Elite 16 with Miles Evans. In a blink, Lotman, with all of three international events on his resume, was the third-ranked player in USA Volleyball.
And if he couldn’t beat the guy, then he may as well have Silila Tucker playing behind him.
For the first time, then, Tucker will enter a season with a full-time partner, a partner who has both international and AVP points. He’s playing with a man who takes it as seriously as he does, which is to say: He approaches it as a professional.
“We’re in a good position both ways. AVP is always something you want to do, you want to try and push your limits here, domestically,” Tucker said. “For me, when I think about Olympic qualification — and obviously that’s everyone’s goal, but everyone also knows how difficult that is. It’s difficult, but everything is hard, and if you go and play all in these events, the worst thing you’re going to get is experience. For us, it’s a win win. We’re going to go, and win or lose we’re going to get experience, and we’re going to see where we’re at.
“Our goal, initially, first year is World Champs. See if we can get to World Champs. Make that the goal for international stuff. And then if you get to World Champs, who knows what happens? I’m young enough where everything is good experience for me and I just want to get out and play and keep getting better. There’s no right or wrong route for me right now. As long as I’m playing and keep getting better, one I’m having a blast, and two I’m progressing and that’s always fun too.”